Northern California counties hit hard by wildfires this fall now find themselves racing against time to clean debris and shore up hillsides as winter rains set in.
“Our concern is very high for making sure our residents are safe; we don’t know how these fire areas are going to respond to a hard winter,” said Jill Ruzicka, spokeswoman for Lake County. That county, in the hills northwest of Sacramento, was ravaged in September by one of the worst wildfires in state history, the Valley fire, which left four people dead, destroyed nearly 2,000 buildings and scarred 76,000 acres.
Mudslides and flash floods are now the main fear. Calaveras County, where the Butte fire denuded 71,000 acres and burned 475 homes two months ago, faces the same concerns, as do Placer and El Dorado counties, where the 2014 King fire burned 98,000 acres in the mountains above Highway 50.
The unusually hot September fires baked the soil on hillsides, making the ground nonporous so it repels rather than absorbs water, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said. That situation could be exacerbated if a predicted El Niño winter brings heavy rains to the area.
The National Weather Service issued an early flash-flood watch for Calaveras County on Monday during the first major storm of the season, and officials say they will be on high alert for floods and slides throughout the winter.
State government has teamed with counties on what could be a $100 million-plus cleanup and erosion-control effort in Lake and Calaveras counties alone. Some of that effort is focused on shoring up hillsides above major roads. Other work involves dredging streams and putting gauges in those waterways to monitor flows through the winter.
Most of the work, though, is focused on cleaning up debris at nearly 2,000 private homesteads, and making the land safe for rebuilding and habitation.
“Given the damage and the time of year with the rainy season soon upon us, there is an imperative to get this debris cleaned up as swiftly as possible,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the governor’s finance department. “We are willing to draw down on the budget reserve to cover those additional costs.”
The cleanup response funding could rival the cost of fighting the two fires, which totaled $125 million. State finance officials say a significant amount of the costs will be eligible for federal reimbursement.
In Calaveras County, 698 private property owners signed up by last week’s deadline to have their land included in the state’s ongoing debris removal and site remediation program led by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle. Twenty crews are involved in the cleanup, working seven days a week. The number of crews will ratchet up to 30 in the coming weeks, Calaveras County spokeswoman Sharon Torrence said.
In Lake County, 1,132 landowners have signed up for state remediation, according to CalRecycle. Thirty-six cleanup crews were in the field working as of early last week.
Teams remove hazardous materials, including asbestos, then clean out debris and scrape ash off the property. The remaining soil is tested for contaminants. Crews then do erosion control as needed.
Steve Hannigan of the Mountain Ranch area in Calaveras County witnessed a cleanup effort at a friend’s burned-out homestead over the weekend. He said at least a dozen crew members wearing white hazmat suits and armed with shovels descended on the property Saturday to scrub the land and remove building materials and other toxic waste leftover from the blaze.
“They get it done in a day,” said Hannigan, an employee of Sender’s Market in Mountain Ranch. “The semi trucks line up and they dump all that material into the container.”
Hannigan, whose home did not burn, said crews from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and AT&T made the rounds on his 10-acre spread recently to remove downed power lines and trees.
“It gives you a clean slate to start with,” he said, but he complained the work leaves “nothing but mud behind,” which has him and others worried.
County officials, however, say crews are trying to avoid adding to mudslide risks during cleanups. In some cases, damaged trees are turned into chips that are used as mulch. Calaveras spokeswoman Torrence said on some hillsides, felled trees are being laid diagonally on the ground to funnel water away from slopes.
Torrence said the cleanup crews have cleaned 55 of the 700 private properties on their list so far. She said all properties could be cleaned and ready for rebuilding by early 2016.
The effort has turned normally quiet Calaveras County roads into a bustling construction zone.
Sarge Sigh, an employee of the Sierra Trading Post off Highway 88 in Mokelumne Hill, said his gas station and store is a gathering point for crews and residents in search of morning coffee and fuel for chain saws. Traffic is particularly bad in the mornings and evenings as workers commute in and out of the foothills, other residents say.
County spokeswoman Torrence said officials have another reason to push the cleanup process.
“There are a lot of people who have chosen to stay on their properties, living in tents and trailers. Those aren’t the most comfortable places to be,” she said. “(The federal government) has offered hotels and temporary housing, but we don’t have a lot of motels here.”
“Some people are building shacks just to stick around,” said Sigh. “They had nothing to come back to.”
Caltrans in both counties has been conducting erosion control work on hillsides above key roads. And state crews have been clearing streams and creeks since the fires were put out in September to ready them for winter flows. “We need to get vegetation and debris out of stream beds so water can flow,” Lake County spokeswoman Ruzicka said.
State and county officials, including sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and county public works employees, have been told to do “windshield surveys” wherever they drive in the hills, she said, “to keep an an eye out on things.”